Oh, the holidays — mountains of presents to buy and food to prepare; invitations to be extended and cards to write. With the endless blur of activity and tasks to finish before finally settling down to enjoy Christmas Day, who has time to, oh, process what any of it really means?
Well, Vanessa Channing wants things to be different. After traveling every year with her husband JT and twin boys from Los Angeles to the snowy suburbs of Massachusetts, Vanessa has elected to stay home in L.A. and enjoy more of a secluded Christmas. This drastically changes plans for the Boston-based Channings, however, and JT’s brother Richard — along with his wife, Patience, and teenage daughter Libby — decide that rather than spend their holiday without their family in Massachusetts, they’ll just bring the holiday to Vanessa’s family.
That’s all well and good — except that Patience, Vanessa’s sister-in-law, is totally Type A and crazy about Christmas. Though they’re now on the West Coast and there’s nary a snowflake to be found, Patience brings her conventional ideas of a “traditional” holiday with her, and Vanessa wants little to do with it. After JT comes down with the flu, leaving Vanessa to entertain and prepare for the big day alone, the life vest she’d been wearing to get her through the season begins to deflate.
And toss in a seductive playwright who desperately wants her “assistance” with a new piece he’s writing; her artsy, unhelpful sister Thea who can’t commit to a new installation or boyfriend; Carol, her mother, and Carol’s new, meddling boyfriend? Yep, recipe for disaster.
Sandra Harper’s Over The Holidays is a tongue-in-cheek look at those traditions that both bind and break us, and the maniacal way in which we all flutter around this time of year — trying to be everyone to everybody. I loved that the book was based in Los Angeles, giving us a glimpse of a warm-weather Christmas — something I find fascinating! And Harper did a solid job discussing the Channing traditions and their meaning to each individual member.
While the novel was definitely a fast, entertaining read, I had a hard time getting past my annoyance with several of the characters. The Boston-based Channings — Richard, Patience and Libby — came across as such stereotypical, uptight New Englanders, and they felt more like caricatures of WASPs than real people. Like Vanessa, Patience’s OCD began to really grate on me. And if it was supposed to? Harper did an excellent job! I came dangerously close to wishing I could grab her by her skinny, twinset-wearing neck and give her a good slap. And Libby, their teenage daughter, was so incessantly whiny, ungrateful and selfish that I would have been tempted to ditch her in L.A. on my way back to Massachusetts.
Through our all-knowing, third-person narrator, we’re able to dart in and out of the minds of every character in Over The Holidays — a fact I found jarring. Vanessa seemed to be the story’s anchor and principle player, and I think I would have enjoyed the book better if I’d seen everything through her filter — and gotten her “side” of things more clearly. Thea fascinated me, too, and was my favorite person in the novel; I could have enjoyed the story as told by her perspective, too. Her examination of what the holidays “mean,” as explored through her art, was an interesting concept. Seeing even more of that would have been fun.
Overall, a fast and simple read which satisfied my desire to read something with a Christmas bent. A little more substance in the story would have rounded out my holiday feast, but I’m happy to have spent some time with the Channings in their pursuit of something lasting — and something real.
3.5 out of 5!